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by Dorothy Leeds

Ever hear of the answering reflex? The impulse to answer a question -- any question -- is as automatic as the "fight or flight" response. You need to ask questions to start a sale, but you need to ask the right questions to close one. Unless you learn to probe and clarify throughout the entire sales process, you'll never uncover a prospect's hidden objections.

Why is getting the inside story so hard? After all, didn't I just say that the answering reflex guarantees that people will respond to your questions? The problem is that those responses won't necessarily give you the whole story.

The Four Basic Barriers

To be a successful salesperson, you must thoroughly understand the four reasons why ordinary questioning skills aren't enough, and why the ability to probe and clarify is the greatest determiner of success.

The four reasons are:

1. People don't volunteer information

2. People talk in generalities

3. People make wrong assumptions

4. People perceive things differently

These four communications problems make it necessary for every salesperson to develop the skills of a detective tackling a baffling case. Good salespeople get answers to their questions. Great ones probe and clarify each answer until they've solved the mystery. To get that order signed takes nothing less than detective work at every stage of the selling process.

Breaking Through the Barriers: Barrier #1

The first problem -- that people don't volunteer information -- comes up all the times when you're selling. A prospect might say, "We're not ready to make a decision yet," never volunteering that the "we" refers to a committee of six that must have proposals submitted in writing, and the "make a decision yet" refers to a meeting next month. Though these are crucial details, the prospect isn't going to volunteer them. It's up to you to probe and clarify to get a full understanding of the situation.

Barrier #2

People buy specifics, but often talk in generalities. Their reasons for agreeing or objecting to your sale can be very precise, but they're unlikely to state them. Even when people think in specifics they are often too lazy, afraid or impatient to state their real feelings. And many times a prospect's reasons for turning you down may be very vague: perhaps a feeling of distrust caused by your tone of voice or lack of eye contact.

What is a salesperson to do with general answers like "I'll think about it"? What will the prospect be thinking about? You don't know what aspect of the sale he will be dwelling on. Find out, and if need be refocus his attention where you want it. Respond with, "That's great. I'm glad you're going to be thinking about this. What exactly will you be focusing on?"

It's natural to enjoy hearing a prospect say "I liked your policy proposal," but this is one gift horse you have to look in the mouth and ask, "What exactly did you like about it?" A standard objection like "I'm not ready yet" could mean anything from "I don't like you" to "I'm considering two other insurance companies" to "I don't have the money" to a dozen other concerns. Unless you probe and clarify you have no idea what to focus on to convince the person these concerns won't affect the satisfaction or value of your product or service.

Barrier #3

Barrier #3 is that people make wrong assumptions. I know from my own personal experience. Early on in my sales career I made an overly pessimistic assumption that cost me dearly. As an account executive for the catalog division of Grey Advertising, my job was to secure retailer and mail order companies to use our services. I never contacted the very large stores because I assumed they must already have an agency. It wasn't until my boss pointed out my unfounded supposition that I started calling on the big guns. In no time my commissions doubled: it turned out that even the largest stores were interested in our services.

You can't assume anything. When a prospect says, "I'll take it into my boss," or "I'll talk to my spouse about it," most of us assume these are positive signs that the sale is progressing. But the prospect could be planning to tell his boss to hold off on the purchase. Unless you probe and clarify statement you'll never know where the sale really stands. Next time you hear, "I have to talk it over with my wife," probe that answer by asking, "Do I understand you correctly that if your wife likes it you'll be ready to proceed?"

Barrier #4

The final obstacle to communication is the fact that people perceive things differently. How I perceive a situation will be quite different from how you perceive it. That's because everyone's perceptions are based on past experience and present desires. So if I say, "let's go out to dinner," the scene those words conjure up in my mind is probably very different than what you envision.

Such differing perceptions can play havoc with a sale. When a prospect says "let's close the deal," you might take that to mean a signed contract with money up front, but to your prospect it means one more round of negotiations.

One area where perceptions always vary is people's perception of their own importance. It's natural for a person to have a heightened sense of his or her own significance. However, prospects frequently perceive themselves as decision makers when they can't really give the final okay. Be sure that when a prospect says, "I'm ready to close the deal," he has the authority to do so.

Once you learn to recognize these four communications barriers, you can easily learn to probe and clarify your way right through them.

  Dorothy Leeds
  800 West End Ave.
  New York, NY   10025
  212.932.8364 (FAX)

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